Ecoscience: Topsoil Erosion

Misguided agricultural policies in the 1970s threw aside decades of sensible soil conservation efforts and caused a dangerous increase in topsoil erosion rates, the authors warned in 1980.

| July/August 1980

In the midst of today's fuss and furor about our present shortages (and continued depletion) of resources—especially of energy—the accelerating loss of one of our most precious treasures, our topsoil, has gone almost unnoticed, Yet this neglected resource—which is today, and has been in the past, the basis of much of America's wealth—is so slowly renewable as to be virtually irreplaceable.

Recent farming practices, abetted by federal and state farm assistance that has actually encouraged increased crop production at the expense of conservation measures, are leading to unprecedented topsoil erosion—by wind and water—of America's crop and grazing lands. The source of our future productivity is being overused, abused, blown away, and quite literally washed down the river.

How and why is this happening In a country where sophisticated agricultural technology has been almost universally adopted and where farmers have access to state and federal assistance and extension services? Was nothing learned as a result of the disastrous 1930's Dust Bowl? Just how serious is the problem anyway?

Lessons Learned

The Dust Bowl crisis did indeed stimulate an effective national soil conservation program. Farmers were taught—and encouraged through incentives—to employ various techniques that diminish soil erosion and protect fertility.

Among the methods were contour plowing, terracing, and strip planting (the alternation of earth-retaining crops with relatively erosive ones) ... all of which help protect topsoil on sloping land from water erosion. Wind erosion was reduced by planting windbreaks of trees or tall crops.

The depletion of soil nutrients, and both kinds of erosion, were combated with crop rotation ... that is, the planting of a cash crop (such as corn, soybeans, or wheat) in alternate years with grasses or soil-enriching legumes (alfalfa or clover, for example) that provide—in addition—good pasturage for livestock.

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